Portraits on Glass
August 6, 2015
I’m a little nervous before talking to audiences about my work but usually warm up and tell part of my story and then am ready to improvise and answer questions. This morning they come nonstop from about a hundred visitors, quite a few for an art lecture, at Bakersfield Museum of Art, in the gallery showing fifty likenesses and interpretations of local residents and a couple dozen from other places. In recent years I’ve painted almost seven hundred portraits of people white, black, brown, young, and old, and shown them in my evolving exhibit Population in places as widespread and different as West Virginia, Louisiana, Kansas, and Washington.
I started my career as a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and just before graduation they stunned me by offering a teaching job. I didn’t know anything about teaching and was worried I couldn’t do it but had to say yes and found I loved teaching. I taught there a long time but every day after school was exhausted and had little left for creative work. It was scary giving up a salary and health insurance since I have a wife and three kids but I started painting ten to fourteen hours a day. Nothing makes me feel better than a day’s work, and I’ve been lucky and become wealthy, but I’d like to be wealthier. Sometimes people say they want that body of work and buy a whole wall of portraits at once. No one asks publicly today but my twelve- by twelve-inch paintings of faces on thick glass go for seventy-five hundred apiece. If you agree to let the painting travel with my exhibits, I’ll knock off fifteen hundred.
Another cell phone goes off, about the fifth time this morning, and I smile and say, can we please agree to all turn off our phones? Here, I better check mine, too. The questions are always wonderful at these gatherings. Art lovers understand art and want to learn more. I’m asked about John Singer Sargent, who said he lost a friend every time he painted a portrait, and that prompts me to comment about his influence on my work, and Vincent van Gogh’s influence, and I admit – really, I’m bragging – that I’ve stolen from just about everyone and plan to take more. Beginning painters should copy the masters. And they won’t only be copying because they’ll do some things differently and even then find part of their voices and in time they’ll develop distinct voices.
Do you only paint portraits, someone wants to know. No, I paint many things including landscapes and figures. I love painting the human body. In fact, all those faces you see are really naked from the chins down. Unfortunately, my wife won’t let me paint figures anymore unless they’re men, and that’s no fun.